The Dark Knight Rises is the most underrated film in Christopher Nolan’s incredible trilogy. Ultimately, the shadow of its predecessor, namely Heath Ledger’s legendary performance as the crown prince of crime, made it an incredibly hard act to follow. What makes The Dark Knight Rises special is the totality of Bruce Wayne’s story over the course of the trilogy. Nolan brilliantly weaves together the thread lines of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight to create an ending fitting for the most complex superhero in the medium.
Batman Begins has all the elements needed from a Bruce Wayne origin. We start with the death of his parents and the consequences that has on his psychology as a young boy. Nolan spends quite some time on the early life of Bruce, where we see him learn the lessons he would eventually carry as Batman. We see his physical and mental training with the League of Shadows, where Ra’s al Ghul created and molded Bruce to become a warrior while helping him channel his guilt and anger at the loss of his parents. In many ways, Ra’s al Ghul is one of the most important parts of The Dark Knight trilogy and his impact on Bruce as his mentor and his enemy is still felt in The Dark Knight Rises. In The Dark Knight, the Joker is on a quest to break the identity Bruce had built with Batman by challenging every philosophical underpinning instilled inside him. He showed Bruce no matter how pure one may be, all it takes is ‘one bad day’ to break. Both of these films are masterpieces and often lead to undermining the finale of the story. What is important to realize is The Dark Knight Rises perfectly compliment the story of Bruce and is ultimately the quintessential Bruce Wayne story.
The Dark Knight Rises opens similarly to its predecessors with the iconic Bat emerging in a symbolic way to parallel Bruce’s struggle. In Batman Begins, many Bats come together to form the Batman icon, symbolizing Bruce constructing his physical and psychological identity as the Batman from that which he feared most as a kid. The Dark Knight logo is engulfed in flames, foreshadowing the worst trial for Bruce, the death of Rachel. The Dark Knight Rises bat logo emerges from cracking ice, which symbolized the breaking of Bruce’s body and soul. Rises is essentially about pain and tragedy. We see a very broken Bruce; he has secluded himself from the world. This is a journey of his final trial within Nolan’s arc for the character. The conclusion of the Batman.
As with any iteration of Bruce, whether it is the comics, live action or animated series, the driving force of who and what he is ultimately comes down to the death of his parents. The Dark Knight Rises brings back the iconic pearled necklace, fixed and stowed away before Selina Kyle steals them. This shows his desperation in wanting to heal the wound that his parent’s death caused. He is still very reluctant to let it go and the nature of the pearls and where they are at different points of the film is important to realize. The symbolism in his arc is clear. Not only does he not want to part ways with the past or the necklace, but also wants to find a way to heal and repair. Bruce is still broken, the loss of his parents and the more recent loss of Rachel leaves him in a bad state. It is even shown physically as he is walking around using a cane for assistance. This stage of his arc is influenced by Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.
Alfred… I did find someone
In many ways, Alfred is Christopher Nolan’s mouthpiece in the trilogy. Everything piece of advice he gives Bruce has a larger connotation for his arc and a foreshadowing of what is to come. In The Dark Knight Rises, this continues to stay true. Alfred insists to Bruce that he move on from the shackles he put himself in. Bruce mentions that he did find someone, and the reason he can’t move on is largely because he lost her. The guilt of not being able to save Rachel is clear but it only doubles for Bruce, a man who is still feeling the guilt of not saving his parents. Alfred confesses that he foresaw Gotham being unfit for Bruce and preferred he never came back during the early events of Batman Begins, finally foreshadowing the ending of the film through his own fantasy of seeing Bruce happy someday. In order for The Dark Knight Rises to test Bruce, we see him have a fallout with Alfred after he reveals to Bruce that he hid the fact that Rachel chose Dent over him. This creates a sense of isolation and void of trust. This is a Bruce Wayne that is essentially on a suicide mission and is now completely alone going forward.
Bane is the perfect villain to exploit all of Bruce’s weaknesses at this point of his arc. He is more brutal than the Joker, smarter than Scarecrow and a more dangerous embodiment of Ra’s al Ghul. Physically, he is the strongest person to come in contact with Batman. The key here is Nolan’s bridge between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises. Ra’s al Ghul trained Bane and turned him into the warrior he eventually becomes, much like Bruce. They are both proteges of Ra’s yet went in opposite paths. Bane is not so different from Bruce. He was physically thrown into a pit much like Bruce was metaphorically thrown into one after the death of is parents. Similarly, Ra’s al Ghul shares pain with Bruce as well. Ra’s lost his wife much like Bruce lost Rachel, through violence. This beautifully highlights the differences and similarities between a hero and a villain. With similar circumstances, they choose different paths.
The showdown between Bane and Batman is simply an easy win for Bane. Bane is at his peak, physically and mentally, while Bruce at his absolute lowest. We see Bane famously break Batman’s back, along with his soul. Bane then throws Bruce in the same pit that he was forced to be in years ago, revealing his true agenda. He is here to fulfill Ra’s Al Ghul’s destiny.
Bruce..Why do we fall
The most important scene in the film and the moment where Bruce’s arc shines the clearest is his path out of the pit. Thematically, we are brought back to square one, back to Batman Begins. Even at his older age and broken body, Bruce reverts back to the kid who fell under Wayne manor. Symbolizing his rebirth and his path to becoming Batman once again, Bruce needed to fall in order to learn to pick himself up. That is the ultimate lesson of this trilogy. When one falls, the one foundational reason to get back up again is fear. Bruce had reached such a level of brokenness, he didn’t have the fear of death anymore, he welcomed it. By returning himself to the state of fear by refusing the safety rope reverts him back to the child waiting for his dad to save his, more literally the child Talia was, when she escapes. This moment is not only the most important scene of the film, it is the lynchpin of the entire trilogy. Christopher Nolan masterfully executed the shots, the flashbacks and it is elevated by Hans Zimmer’s beautiful score. This moment captures all the weight and energy thrusted on Bruce during Batman Begins and The Dark Knight and brings it to a powerful concision, Bruce lifting himself out. This marks the return of Bruce Wayne, the return of Batman.
The film ends with Bruce, Selina, and Jim ultimately stopping Bane and Talia, leading to the final sacrifice of Batman. This is the end of Batman for the story and the end of Bruce Wayne’s journey. The last shot of Batman is scored with the same undertones from his parent’s death in Batman Begins, bringing everything full circle. We see that just as the movie started with the “noble lie” in order to protect Harvey Dent’s image, the movie ends with the “noble lie” of Batman’s sacrifice. The city was better off believing Batman gave up his life to save them, knowing it would inspire them to follow Batman’s ideal in everyday heroism, finally letting Batman become both the Dark and White Knight of the story. Batman truly becomes the hero Gotham deserves and the hero it needed to save the city.
Bringing the arc of the trilogy together, we end the trilogy with Bruce fulfilling Alfred’s dream. Bruce is with Selina, who is wearing Martha’s pearls, alluding to Bruce finally being at peace with the pain and torment of the death of his parents. Batman’s arc was completed as he saved Gotham multiple times, ultimately sacrificing himself to save the city. Bruce Wayne’s arc was completed as he climbed out of the pit of his pain and trauma and ultimately living the life Alfred always dreamed he would. In short, Christopher Nolan created the quintessential Bruce Wayne story with The Dark Knight Rises.